Nov 212014
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


GUY CULLINGFORD – Conjurer’s Coffin. Hammond, UK, hardcover, 1954. Lippincott, US, hardcover, 1954 Penguin Books, UK. paperback, 1957.

   Miss Jessie Milk, spinster of uncertain age and kin to the distressed gentlewomen so well portrayed by Barbara Pym, finds somewhat unsuitable employment as a receptionist at the Bellevue Hotel, which does not live up to its name and which the police have nothing against, muddle and unconventionality not yet being against the law. The Bellevue caters, if that’s the mot juste, to the less eminent variety performers.

   Gene the Genie, a magician and one of the not-quite-successful artistes, primarily because of his interest in horse-flesh and not because of lack of talent or imagination, checks into the hotel with his wife and his female assistant the first afternoon Miss Milk is on duty. He plays a trick on her then and becomes aware that she is a perfect foil for a magician.

   When first Gene the Genie’s assistant and then his wife disappear, Miss Milk is an excellent witness. When the wife’s body turns up in the trash, the police are baffled by Miss Milk’s testimony but accept her transparent honesty in telling things as she believes she saw them. Fortunately, a retired Merchant Navy Captain, now a bookstore detective, lives in the hotel and has Miss Milk’s interests at heart in more ways than one. He is able to determine what happened, although it’s not by any means all ratiocination.

   Well written, amusing, excellent characterization, and an interesting crime. All of Cullingford’s novels are well worth trying to find.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1990.


Bibliographic Notes:   Guy Cullingford was the pen name of (Alice) C(onstance) Lindsay Taylor, 1907-2000, who has one title in Hubin under her own name, and ten as by Cullingford. Of the latter, only four have been published in the US. In spite of the possibilities suggested by Conjurer’s Coffin, there seems to be no series character appearing in any more than one of them.

 Posted by at 7:45 pm
Nov 052014
 
FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   In ELLERY QUEEN: THE ART OF DETECTION I mentioned that the music for the first ten episodes of the ADVENTURES OF ELLERY QUEEN radio series, which debuted in 1939, was composed by the young Bernard Herrmann, and that three excerpts from his scores for the series could be heard on the Web, played on a synthesizer by David Ledsam.

   A few weeks ago I discovered that three complete Herrmann scores for the series were uploaded to the Web last summer, more than a year after my book came out. The episodes for which Herrmann’s music can now be heard are “The Fallen Angel,” “Napoleon’s Razor” and “The Impossible Crime,” which aired respectively on July 2, 9 and 16 of 1939.

   Each score runs from ten to twelve minutes and is played on a synthesizer by Kevin Dvorak. I’m sure the music would sound more like the Herrmann we know and love if it were played on the instruments for which he wrote it, but it’s a lot better than what we had before, which was nothing. Check all three out via the YouTube videos above.

***

   For us old-timers “Gone Girl” is the name of a Lew Archer short story by Ross Macdonald. Now it’s also the name of a first-rate crime-suspense movie, directed by noir specialist David Fincher and written by Gillian Flynn based on her 2012 best-seller of the same name.

   Most readers of this column are likely to have seen something about the picture, so I won’t bother to summarize the plot beyond saying that when beautiful Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) disappears from her upscale Missouri home amid signs of violence, the media go into a frenzy and all but crucify her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) as her murderer.

   There are several strong females in the film so perhaps I’m not revealing too much when I say that one of them struck me as the film noir woman to end all film noir women, and a manipulator of such epic proportions that she leaves Diedrich Van Horn and all the other Iago figures in the Ellery Queen novels choking on her dust.

***

   A few weeks ago, with a bit of time to kill, I decided to tackle REDHEAD (Hurst & Blackett, 1934), the fourth of John Creasey’s 600-odd novels, the second of 28 that deal with Department Z — which in those days of Creasey’s youth was called Z Department — and the earliest I happen to own.

   According to the invaluable Hubin bibliography, this item was never published in the U.S., not even back in the early 1970s when Popular Library was putting out original paperback versions of countless Creaseys from the Thirties. My copy is an English softcover (Arrow pb #417, 1971) and indicates that the book was revised for republication, although the revisions must have been done with a very light hand indeed.

   Department Z has little to do with the operation, which pits a muscular young Brit named Martin “Windy” Storm and various of his cohorts against an American gangster known as Redhead who’s determined to bring his crime methods into England.

   If Creasey took this notion from Edgar Wallace’s 1932 novel WHEN THE GANGS CAME TO LONDON, he moved the center of gravity to the remote Sussex village of Ledsholm and the ancient castle that dominates the area. Much of the book’s second half is taken up by a long long action sequence in which our guys inside Ledsholm Grange are besieged by two separate gangs equipped with revolvers, automatics, machine guns, armored cars, explosives, the whole nine yards of weaponry.

   But since all the characters are stick figures, it’s very hard to keep the action straight or care who shoots or socks whom. Every other sentence ends with an exclamation point (“The greatest criminal enterprise in the history of England was reaching its climax!”), and the king toad makes Lord Voldemort look like a newborn kitten (“Through the hole in the wall he saw the demoniac eyes of Redhead, green, fiendish, glowing with the blood-lust that possessed him”).

   The writing is almost Avallonean in spots: “‘Be quiet!’ hissed Redhead.” And if Creasey preserved lines like “A bullet winged its message of death across the room, sending the dago staggering back”, I can’t help wondering what gems of political incorrectness he tossed out.

Fast forward to his books of only seven or eight years later, like the early Roger West novels (the first five of them collected in INSPECTOR WEST GOES TO WAR, 2011, with intro by me), and you see at a glance how radically Creasey’s writing skills improved over the Thirties.

***

   Or did it take that long? I also happen to have a copy of the next Department Z adventure, FIRST CAME A MURDER (Andrew Melrose, 1934; revised edition, Arrow pb #937, 1967). It has all the earmarks of a Thirties thriller but the writing is so much more restrained and stiff-upper-lippish that it’s hard to believe it came from the same pen as REDHEAD just a few months before.

   I don’t have copies of any Creaseys earlier than these but, judging from the quotations in William Vivian Butler’s THE DURABLE DESPERADOES (1973), both SEVEN TIMES SEVEN and THE DEATH MISER resemble FIRST CAME A MURDER in this respect. Of course, what I have is the revised version of the latter title, and perhaps Butler was quoting from the revised versions of Creasey’s earlier novels too.

   But in that case why does the revised version of REDHEAD sound so different? I can only speculate, and perhaps, in the words of so many Erle Stanley Gardner characters, I’m taking a button and sewing a vest on it. But it strikes me as significant that REDHEAD was originally published by Hurst & Blackett whereas the publisher of all the other early Creaseys was Andrew Melrose.

   Creasey once said that SEVEN TIMES SEVEN, the first novel he sold, was the tenth he’d written. Could REDHEAD have been one of the rejected nine? If there’s ever a comprehensive biography of that awesomely prolific author, perhaps we’ll learn the answer.

 Posted by at 10:45 pm
Oct 112014
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


VALENTINE WILLIAMS and DOROTHY RICE SIMS – Fog. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1933; Popular Librar #76, paperback, n. d. [1946]. Film: Columbia, 1933 (starring Mary Brian, Donald Cook and Reginald Denny).

   The S. S. Barbaric lives up to its name as three of its passengers are strangled en route from New York to England. The first is the irascible millionaire Alonzo Holt, who wouldn’t have sailed if he had known that the son he never knew, his estranged second wife, and the charlatan who used to conduct seances for him were aboard.

   While there is an occasional good sentence — for example, “The curious delusion that the ability to amass wealth implies a disposition to distribute it in charity, deserving or undeserving, attracts shoals of beggars to the millionaire’s door” — the authors have overwritten throughout. Worse, none of the characters ring true, except for the bridge fanatic, nicknamed Sitting Bull. Still worse, the hero spots the murderer through a clue provided by the heroine, who could not possibly have been in possession of the information she gave him.

   Skip this one unless you’re a real nostalgia buff.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTES:   This is co-author Dorothy Rice Sims only entry in Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV. Valentine Williams was a far more prolific writer of crime ad detective fiction. There is a very extensive article about him on Mike Grost’s Classic Mystery and Detection website. Highly recommended!

PostScript.   It belatedly occurred to me that I had been lazy, and that I should have investigated into more about Mrs. Sims. It turns out that there is quite a bit more to say.

   From a website dedicated to famous contract bride players, there is a short biography of her, along with a photo. Excerpting from the first couple of paragraphs:

    “Dorothy Rice Sims was born June 24, 1889 at Asbury Park NJ. From her teens, Dorothy was active in competition, holding the motorcycle speed championship for women (1911) and becoming one of the first U.S. aviatrixes, in which capacity she met and married ACBL Hall of Fame Member P. Hal Sims.

    “She was a noted sculptress, painter and author in fields other than bridge, though she wrote several bridge books. She is widely credited with inventing the psychic bid, but probably initiated only the popular name for it. However, she wrote her first book on the subject, Psychic Bidding, 1932.”

 Posted by at 3:15 am
Sep 292014
 
IT’S ABOUT CRIME: A. A. MILNE
by Marv Lachman


   Though he died in 1956 and wrote only one true mystery novel, A. A. Milne is a writer who keeps cropping up. As parents we likely have read his Winnie-the-Pooh stories to our children. As mystery fans we probably have read his classic novel, The Red House Mystery, and Raymond Chandler’s devastating criticism of it in “The Simple Art of Murder.”

   Milne wrote other works that fall into our genre, including his very first sale as a free-lance writer, a delightful little Holmesian parody, “The Rape of the Sherlock” (1903). He also wrote several plays with mystery elements, including one, The Perfect Alibi (1928), which is clearly a forerunner of Sleuth, Witness for the Prosecution, and Death Trap.

   Though it is long out of print, Milne’s Autobiography (1939) is worth searching for in your local library. It’s a delightfully witty picture of someone growing up in Victorian England. At one point Milne remarks that “Very few Victorians were on Christian name terms with each other; Holmes, after twenty years of intimacy, was still calling his colleague Watson.”

   Finishing a chapter on how he writes, Milne provides some clever, though helpful, advice to those of us with authorial ambitions:

    “For myself I have now no faith in miraculous conception. I have given it every chance. I have spent many mornings at Lord’s hoping that inspiration would come, many days on golf courses; I have even gone to sleep in the afternoon, in case inspiration cared to take me by surprise, In vain. The only way I can get an “idea” is to sit at my desk and dredge for it. This is the real labour of authorship with which no other labour in the world is comparable.”

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1986.


 Posted by at 7:46 pm
Sep 272014
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


ELIZABETH HELY – A Mark of Displeasure. Scribner, hardcover, 1960. Heinemann, UK, hardcover, 1961.

   Visiting Edinburgh, Scotland, for the first time, Commissaire Antoine Cirret of the Paris Sûreté is somewhat bemused. The references to the weather by everyone he meets lead him, temporarily, to believe that many of the inhabitants of that city are weather fetishists.

   In Edinburgh at the request of a friend to support him while he’s giving a concert, Cirret goes to sleep during the “Emperor Concerto.” This does not, Cirret would assure you, mean he does not think much of his friend’s technique; it’s just that he does not care that much about music.

   Alec Trevor, the friend and pianist, also has friends in the city, one of whom dies while leaving the concert. Except for Cirret’s curiosity, the murder of a not-much-loved widow by nicotine poisoning would not have been detected.

   The poisoner is known to the reader and maybe to Cirret. Since she is also a friend of Trevor’s, Cirret disturbs the musician by wanting to investigate the case. Actually, Cirret doesn’t care who did it; he, as a humanitarian, merely wants no repetition of the crime.

   Hely presents a wicked but well-liked murderess whose motives are, she assures herself, of the highest, and a delightful detective in Cirret, who looks much like a monkey and may have that creature’s sense of humor. There aren’t that many French detectives that I have enjoyed reading about, but Cirret is an exception.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bio-Bibliographic Notes: Elizabeth Hely was the pen name of Nancy Elizabeth Brassey Leslie Younger, (1913-1981). Her criminous output as a writer consisted of three books in the Cirret series (see below), plus one standalone, The Long Shot (Heinemann, 1963).

       The Commissaire Antoine Cirret series —

   Dominant Third. Heinemann, UK, 1959. US title: I’ll Be Judge, I’ll Be Jury. Scribner, 1959.
   A Mark of Displeasure. Heinemann, UK, 1961. Scribner, US, 1960.
   Package Deal. Hale 1965. No US edition. TV movie: Universal, 1968, as The Smugglers (with Shirley Booth and Emilio Fernández as Inspector Cesare Brunelli).

 Posted by at 6:38 pm
Sep 232014
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


MARGOT NEVILLE – Murder of a Nymph. Doubleday Crime Club, US, hardcover 1950. Detective Book Club, hardcover reprint [3-in-1 volume]. Pocket #829, paperback, 1951. First published in the UK by Geoffrey Bles, hardcover, 1949.

   Another young woman, no better than she should be, bites the dust. And here it’s Australian dust, in, of all places, Come-Hither Bend. Apparently the young woman’s, for want of a better word, friends and relatives at that oddly named place, including her betrothed, were not too fond of her. When she gets off the bus to spend the weekend there, someone beats her about the head and pushes her off a cliff.

   Since everyone had problems with Enone — thus one reason for the nymph — coverup is the name of the game. Detective Inspector Grogan knows this but has difficulty penetrating what each person is trying to conceal. When another murder occurs through the stupidity of one of the characters, all begins to come clear.

   It took me five attempts to finish this book. Grogan appealed, but the rest of the characters left me cold or slightly nauseated. While she writes well, Neville doesn’t provide the wit or lightness that I particularly enjoy. Maybe if I’d read it in sunlight and warmth –

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bio-Bibliographic Data: Margot Nevile was the joint pen name of Margot Goyder (1896-1975) and Anne Neville Goyder Joske (1887-1966). Most but not all of their criminous output consists of the Inspector Grogan series. All were published by Geoffrey Bles in the UK; those marked with an asterisk (*) were never published in the US:

       The Inspector Grogan series —

Murder in Rockwater. 1944. US title: Lena Hates Men.
Murder and Gardenias. 1946. (*)
Murder in a Blue Moon. 1948.
Murder of a Nymph. 1949.
Murder Before Marriage. 1951.
The Seagull Said Murder. 1952. (*)
Murder of the Well-Beloved. 1953.
Murder and Poor Jenny. 1954. (*)
Murder of Olympia. 1956. (*)
Murder to Welcome Her. 1957. (*)
The Flame of Murder. 1958. (*)
Sweet Night for Murder. 1959. (*)
Confession of Murder. 1960. (*)
Murder Beyond the Pale. 1961. (*)
Drop Dead. 1962. (*)
Come See Me Die. 1963. (*)
My Bad Boy. 1964. (*)
Ladies in the Dark. 1965. (*)
Head on the Sill. 1966. (*)

 Posted by at 1:24 am
Sep 042014
 

EDITH HOWIE – Murder for Tea. Contained in the 3-in-1 omnibus volume Three Prize Winners. Farrar & Rinehart, hardcover, 1941. No editor stated. Foreword by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Also published by T. V. Boardman, UK, paperback, 1942.

   The other two books in this scarce volume are Old-Fashioned Murder by Marguerite McIntire, and Westbound Murder by C. S. Wallace. The only copy offered for sale on abebooks.com right now, for example, is being offered at a rather steep $75 price tag. When I spotted one on Amazon last month for $20, I snapped it right up.

   What the three books have in common, you might ask, is that they were all “losers” in the second year of the Mary Roberts Rinehart Mystery Contest. Well, it says “Honorable Mention” in the lower right corner of the book’s front cover, so it’s clear that none of the three were winners.

   So who did get the top prizes? Mary Roberts Rinehart’s foreword tells us that the contest was open only to first time authors. Getting the honor of having their novels published in stand-alone volumes were A. R. Hilliard with Justice Be Damned, and Carolyn Coffin with a book entitled Mare’s Nest. Hilliard (male) wrote only one more work of crime fiction, Outlaw Island (1942), and also so did Carolyn Coffin, that one being Dogwatch (1944).

   Of the runners-up, this was the only work of crime and detective fiction that either McIntire or Wallace (male) managed to get published. In some sense, that makes Howie the real winner, as she went on to write six additional detective novels. A list will be provided later.

   At the moment I don’t know how long this contest continued, but I can tell you who the winners were for 1940: Clarissa Fairchild Cushman (I Wanted to Murder), Ione Sandberg Shriber (Head Over Heels in Murder), Elizabeth Daly (Unexpected Night) and Frank Gruber (The French Key, reviewed here by Jeff Meyerson). I believe, but I am not sure, that all four books were published individually.

   A couple of those authors’ names I’m sure everyone will recognize.

   As for Murder for Tea, I enjoyed it, most of it, that is. I wonder why Howie didn’t make a series with the two leading characters in this one. Shawn Cosgraeve, a six foot black Irishman with a temper to boot, is a mystery writer. Telling the story is his wife of three years standing, Kit, who didn’t make it in New York as a musician niy did find a husband whom she can manage very well, most of the time.

   It takes three years to convince Shawn to take a trip back to her home town of Nashiona, somewhere in the American midwest, not too far from Chicago. From here I’ll quote from page 172:

    “Then what was he doing in Lower Town?” the Sergeant demanded. “Oh, I know there ain’t an answer. Hell! I’m sick of this whole screwy case, Look at it! A woman gets poisoned while a couple hundred people stand around and nobody knows who done it nor why nor even where the poison could have come from. Then a man’s killed and safe’s blown while people wonder what was the noise and a bunch of dopes stand around to watch the guys who did it flop in their car and drive off. And that ain’t all!” The Sergeant flapped his hands despairingly. “We got another murder and a brace of threatening letters and a mess of jewelry that you don’t know whether or not it’s going to be real or phony the next time you see it–” It was too much. He dropped his head and remained sunk in a misery beyond all expressing.

   Kit’s problem is that all of the suspects are friends of hers and their husbands and wives. She knows them from before, but she soon discovers that she doesn’t know them now very much at all — and one of them, the killer, not at all.

   On the overall scale of things, the story takes place in the upper middle class of a small town. The prospects of an upcoming war are not mentioned at all.

   One huge drawback to the story is the Had I But Know aspect of Kit’s story, told some time well after all of the events in had taken place. One wonders if that is what might have caught the judges’ eyes. The other drawback is that when the killer’s identity is revealed I discovered that it didn’t really much matter who it was. Picking a name from a hat may have produced the very same reaction.

   Nonetheless, it might have been instructive to see if Edith Howie could have thought of another situation to place her two leading characters in, to give them a chance of cracking another case. Even though it’s a detective story through and through, this one may have been a little too personal.

    Bibliography: EDITH HOWIE (1900-1979).

Murder for Tea. Farrar, 1941.
Murder for Christmas. Farrar, 1941.

Murder at Stone House. Farrar, 1942.
Murder’s So Permanent. Farrar, 1942.
Cry Murder. Mill, 1944.
The Band Played Murder. Mill, 1946.

No Face to Murder. Mill, 1946.

Note: For more about the author and a review of Murder for Christmas, check out what Curt Evans has to say over on his blog.

 Posted by at 5:25 pm
Aug 282014
 
FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   In the years I’ve written these columns, death has overtaken a number of mystery-writing colleagues to whom I’ve said goodbye here. Till this month, all of them have been older than I. Now it falls to me to commemorate one who was more than five years younger. That is scary.

   On August 14, in Pompano Beach, Florida, a man who ranked with the finest private-eye writers of his time, and was a friend of mine for more than twenty-five years, shot himself to death. Jeremiah Healy was 66.

   The last time I saw him was in the fall of 2011, at the St. Louis Bouchercon. He looked fantastic, a trim handsome dude with thick gray hair and mustache and a beautiful girlfriend and (in his own words) the body of a 19-year-old paratrooper. He brought to mind a character in a radio soap opera my mother listened to when I was a small child, a fellow who, whenever asked how he was doing, would reply “Sittin’ on top o’ the world.”

   Why Jerry took his own life I won’t discuss except to say that, unknown to me, he’d been battling prostate cancer and clinical depression and alcoholism and perhaps other dark forces for years. In the magnificent words of Pope Francis, who am I to judge him?

   Like me, he was a law professor. When his career as a crime novelist began, he and I were the only mystery writers who had come to the genre from legal academia. In PI fiction it was the age of Robert B. Parker and of regionalism. Like Parker’s Spenser, Healy’s PI John Francis Cuddy was a jogger and amateur chef who lived and worked in Boston, a city he knew well and described almost like a human character.

   Parker I suppose was the Hertz of the area’s mystery writers and Healy the Avis, but for a variety of reasons — two of them no doubt because we shared the same day job and got to be friends — I always preferred Jerry‘s books over Parker’s. Spenser was single and Cuddy a widower who often visited his wife’s gravesite, and spoke to her, and was, or thought he was, answered.

   (Several widowers in movies directed by John Ford also spoke to their wives but never had dialogue with them. I once asked Jerry if he’d gotten the idea from Ford but he said he hadn’t.)

   One of Parker’s lasting innovations was to put his protagonist in a monogamous relationship with one woman, and as the death of Cuddy’s wife faded in time he followed in Spenser’s footsteps with Susan Silverman by getting monogamously involved with a female prosecutor.

   Healy’s first novel, Blunt Darts (1984), struck me as very good but perhaps too much in the shadow of Ross Macdonald. The New York Times called it one of the seven best mysteries of its year. His second, The Staked Goat (1986), I thought one of the finest PI novels I’d ever read. Almost thirty years after its publication I still say it belongs on any sensible short list of the great books of the genre since the death of Lew Archer’s creator.

***

   Number four in the series, Swan Dive (1988), begins with Cuddy obliging a lawyer friend by agreeing to bodyguard Hanna Marsh, who has left her sadistic husband and is seeking both a divorce and the luxurious marital home.

   Roy Marsh, not only a wife-beater and womanizer but a cocaine dealer on the side, tries to persuade Hanna to drop the suit by disembowelling their daughter’s cat. Cuddy goes outside the law to teach Roy a lesson in litigation etiquette, but a few nights later when Roy and a hooker are murdered in a fleabag hotel, all the evidence points to Cuddy, who is menaced not only by the police but by Roy’s coke-dealing compadres hunting for a missing shipment of their stock in trade.

   Healy carefully balances whodunit and mean-streets elements, skillfully draws characters (many of whom speak Ethnic English, a trademark in this series), gives us the usual sharply observed tour of metro Boston, and even imparts some movement to Cuddy’s long-stalled relationship with the lovely assistant D.A. whom at this point in the saga he refuses to sleep with out of loyalty to his dead wife.

   Yesterday’s News (1989) brings Cuddy to the decaying port city of Nasharbor, where a woman reporter on the local paper supposedly committed suicide less than twelve hours after hiring him to look into the murder of one of her confidential sources, a petty porn merchant claiming inside knowledge of police corruption.

   It’s a briskly paced and tightly constructed novel, bringing to life a number of social and professional environments, with richly varied characters and relationships and sleazoid dialogue in the manner of George V. Higgins punctuated by short bursts of action.

***

   You could never have guessed from Jerry’s first five novels that he was a law professor or even the holder of a law degree. It was only with Cuddy’s sixth full-length case that his creator’s two careers came together.

   The title of Right to Die (1991) perfectly captures its theme. Cuddy is brought to the not totally fictitious Massachusetts Bay Law School to investigate a string of obscene anonymous notes to Maisy Andrus, a fiery law prof who not only publicly advocates legalized euthanasia but admits that she euthanized her dying first husband, a wealthy Spanish doctor, and got away with it. (Why she wasn’t extradited to Spain to stand trial, and even got to keep all the property her husband left her, are questions I fear are never adequately answered.)

   In the first 150 pages more notes keep popping up and Cuddy goes around interviewing various people with ideological or personal reasons for hating Andrus’ guts, among them a black female minister, a Catholic pro-life fanatic, a Jewish doctor and a neo-Nazi skinhead. The suspects are well drawn and each of them mounts a soapbox on which to orate on issues of life and death.

   Things heat up in later chapters, but the climax leaves more nagging questions unanswered. And anyone who can swallow Healy’s biggest credibility sandwich, which consists of our middle-aged PI finishing the 26-mile Boston Marathon four days after getting out of Massachusetts General Hospital with a slug in the hip, is a veritable Dagwood.

   Jerry told me that a doctor at Harvard Medical School vouched for the possibility, saying that a bullet would have done Cuddy less harm than the flu, but I still don’t buy it.

   Chapter 5 of Right to Die ought to be required reading even for those in legal education who don’t enjoy mysteries. Cuddy, a Vietnam veteran and law-school dropout, visits Andrus’ Ethics and Society class and is exposed once again to that bete noir of jurisprudence, the so-called Socratic Method.

   Maisy Andrus’ classroom style, says Cuddy, “reminded me of a black Special Forces captain in basic training who ran the TTIS, the Tactical Training of the Individual Soldier, the most miserable obstacle course I ever experienced.”

   For the next several pages we see the Method in action: Kingsfieldesque bullying, rapid-fire cross-examination of hapless students, hypotheticals straight out of the classic police torture scene from Dirty Harry. Later in Andrus’ office she justifies the Method and her dispassionate use of it. Cuddy dissents.

   “I think torture is a serious matter. I think you do your students a disservice by abstracting it and then making it seem they have no way out of an intellectual puzzle.”

   “Have you ever witnessed torture, Mr. Cuddy?”

   I thought back to the basement of the National Police substation in Saigon. Suspected Viet Cong subjected to bamboo switches, lit cigarettes, telephone crank boxes, and wires. Walls seeping dampness, the mixed stench of body wastes and disinfectants, the screams….

   “Mr. Cuddy?”

   “No, Professor, I’ve never seen torture.”

   The sequence has nothing to do with the plot, but some of the best scenes in Healy’s previous books and especially in The Staked Goat aren’t tied to a storyline either. Standing on its own, this chapter is at once the most even-handed and the most riveting evocation of Socratic Method that I’ve ever encountered in a novel. And yes, that specifically includes The Paper Chase, to which we owe the legendary Professor Kingsfield.

***

   Shallow Graves (1992) comes closer to joining the PI novel and the classic detective tale than any other Healy book I’ve read. The insurance company which once bounced Cuddy for refusing to approve a phony claim hires him back as a freelance to look into the strangulation of Mau Tim Dani, an exotic and rising young fashion model of Sicilian and Vietnamese descent, whose life had been insured by her financially shaky agency for half a million dollars.

   The trouble starts when Cuddy discovers that the dead woman’s Sicilian side, her father and his kin, are Mafia; indeed that her granddad is the Godfather of metro Boston. Healy neatly divides our suspicions among a small cast of characters, offers portraits of the worlds of modeling, advertising and organized crime, and holds tension high despite an almost complete absence of violence.

   He keeps descriptions to a minimum and relies on long Q&A sequences not only to convey plot points but, as is his wont, to showcase several varieties of ethnically flavored English, from Vietnamese to Japanese to Sicilian to black. Anyone who beats Cuddy to the killer’s identity will have done better than I.

   Foursome (1993) takes Cuddy north to rural Maine, where three of the title’s quartet have been slaughtered in their lakeside retreat (very much like Jerry’s own, which I once had the pleasure of visiting) by a crossbow-wielding killer, with Cuddy’s client, the sole survivor of the four, having been charged with triple murder.

   Trying to flush out a credible alternate suspect, Cuddy finds several Mainers and even more folks back in metro Boston who might have wanted one, some or all of the foursome out of the way.

   This time I spotted the culprit long before Cuddy, mainly because I had come to know intimately how Jerry thought and worked. But he paints in vivid colors the pristine beauty of Maine and the big city’s mean streets and suburbs, skillfully characterizes a huge variety of people through Cuddy’s Q&A with them, and breaks up the interrogations with spurts of raw violence, making this longest of Healy’s novels to that point by all odds one of his best.

***

   There’s hardly need to go on, and besides I’m running out of space. Jerry’s legacy to readers consists of 13 Cuddy novels, two collections of Cuddy short stories, three legal thrillers about Boston attorney Mairead O’Claire, and two stand-alone novels.

   His legacy to those who were lucky enough to know him and be his friends is priceless. The countless Web comments on his death share a single leitmotif: what a kind, generous, giving man he was, how supportive and helpful to newer writers. He wasn’t Jewish, but if ever there were a living embodiment of the word mensch it was Jerry Healy. God, what a loss.

 Posted by at 12:14 am
Aug 262014
 
THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


MELISA C. MICHAELS – Through the Eyes of the Dead. Walker, hardcover, 1988. Worldwide Library, reprint paperback, 2000.

   Science-fiction writer Melisa C. Michaels turns to our field with Through the Eyes of the Dead. Aileen Douglass and her partner Sharon Atwood run a private detecting agency in Berkeley. Business isn’t good — it rarely is in this business, with so many PI’s around — and it’s not helped when their only client gets himself killed.

   William MacMurray just wanted his wife found, with hope for a loving reunion; strange that this fond desire should get him shot. Meanwhile, Aileen surprises someone trying to hot-wire her car. Her glands — certainly not her brain — seem to take over, and she invites the would-be car thief, a gypsy, into her home. Soon she’s helping him rescue a sister, bullets are flying, and things are not at all what they seem.

   Pleasant.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bibliographic Notes:   Melisa C. Michaels’ contributions to the world of science fiction can be found here. This was the only appearance of PI’s Douglass and Atwood, but another female PI named Rosie Lavine appeared in two of her fantasy novels, both involving malevolent elves. Titles: Cold Iron (Roc, 1997) and Sister to the Rain (Roc, 1998). One source indicates that Lavine has a partner named Shannon Arthur, and that their PI agency is based in San Francisco. Douglass and Atwood are included on the Thrilling Detective website; Rosie Lavine is not.

 Posted by at 2:36 am
Aug 242014
 
REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


JOHN VAN DER ZEE – Stateline. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, hardcover, 1976. Pyramid, 1977.

   Similar in vein to Murder Plan, by John Bingham (reviewed here) is Stateline, by John van der Zee, which seems very 70s in parts (the heroine’s name is Rain, for instance) but come to think of it, a lot of 70s stuff seems rather 70s at times.

   The plot depends on the Police overlooking a rather obvious clue, and ignoring a bit of procedure that was SOP when I started Police Work in ’72, but the remarkable thing is that the characters and story are strong enough to hold the tale together despite this.

   Ferrell is a retired cop, working Security at a chintzy casino in Stateline, Nevada, and suffering from a near-terminal case of low self-esteem. One morning he’s handed an unusual Bad Check case: the author of the rubber has not skipped out, as most do, but is waiting around in his hotel room to be arrested.

   Ferrell tries to talk him into a settlement, but the man — who neither admits nor denies his guilt – refuses and is duly incarcerated pending trial. Ferrell warns his bosses that this may all be leading up to something tricky, but he can’t think what, and they press charges anyway — and when the plot explodes, they duly elect Ferrell as their scapegoat.

   As I say, there are holes here big as a roulette wheel, but there are also some very nice touches of characterization and a few telling incidents related with some skill: an early off-the-cuff detail of gamblers and tourists stepping over a heart-attack victim on their way to the tables, for instance, or scenes of Ferrell’s co-workers nervously shunning him as the corporate ax prepares to fall.

   All this, tied in with a plot that keeps moving to a neat, low-key wrap-up, make this one quite enjoyable.

Bibliographic Note:   John van der Zee (1936-   ) has one other title listed in Hubin, that being Blood Brotherhood (Harcourt, 1970). Says Kirkus of this earlier book, in part: “Somehow Mr. van der Zee [...] contrives to put forth this tale about the portentous murder of an Establishment-bucking labor leader as not only remotely possible but current.”

 Posted by at 7:40 pm